January 8, 2017. Some of you might remember that last year, Matthew and I spent New Year’s in Vienna dancing to the Blue Danube Waltz at the Rathaus Silvester Gala (Translation: “City Hall New Year’s Eve Ball”). This year, we decided to go back to the same country to enjoy the same holiday, but from a different vantage point. We joined friends for a ski trip to Bad Hofgastein. No, the place isn’t on the naughty side of town, across the tracks from Good Hofgastein. Bad means “bath” because the hamlet has some impressive hot springs and is located smack in the middle of the Gastein Valley, an Alpine skiing Mecca … but more about that in a minute. (P.S. Fair warning: this is a loooooong post, so pull up a chair and be prepared to sit a spell.)
On Christmas night after all our dinner guests had departed, we washed the dishes, opened presents with our family via Facetime, tossed some clothes in a suitcase, and managed to get about two hours of sleep before heading off to the airport. By the time we landed in Vienna, we were dazed, bedraggled, and dog-tired. So we went hunting for some restorative holiday street food: sausages, potato pancakes drenched in garlic, and cups of high-octane punsch. A meal guaranteed to either perk you up or put you under after a long, hard night.
More Christmas Markets — Yippee!
Last year, we’d arrived in Vienna after most of the Christmas markets had either closed or been converted into New Year’s stalls. But this year, we managed to catch their very last day — December 26th. We ran around like crazed weasels trying to squeeze in every single one, no small feat considering that there are at least eight X-mas markets spread out over the city. Sandwiched in between all our stall-hopping were some other uniquely Austrian signs of the season, so take a quick look below ….
The next day, we boarded the Bad Hofgastein train, which left from the gorgeous Vienna Hauptbanhoff (Central Railway Station). Gotta say, I think I could pull a Sheldon maneuver from The Big Bang Theory and spend a month traveling around Europe by rail without ever actually leaving any of the stations. Many are flat-out architectural masterpieces, and when you combine them with great shops, food, and even musical performances that are often staged on the platforms, these transportation hubs become destinations in their own right.
The first two hours of our journey zipped by quietly and comfortably. However, when we changed trains at Salzburg, the cars were so sardined with skiers that no seats were available. We eventually ended up plopping down wearily in the dining compartment at a table with two strangers, neither of whom knew each other. I absolutely love these kinds of scenarios. Invariably someone does something odd that breaks the ice and invites chitchat, which diffuses the awkwardness of the situation. In this case, it was us. We ordered two beers that arrived in Colt-45-sized bottles, far too much to consume in the remaining half hour of the trip without our having to be carted off like boozy hobos.
The older gentleman grinned at our dilemma and commented, “Here in Austria, we’re serious about our beer.” We chuckled and offered to share our bounty … and just like that, we were off to the conversational races. The guy spoke only a little English, but the younger kid next to him offered his services as translator, and soon both were regaling us with tales of the surrounding landscape. Each took turns pointing out Medieval fortresses hunkered down into the hills, salt caves where Nazis had hidden stolen artwork, and other local legends. And both peppered us with questions about how we’d come to be traveling in Austria and living in Europe.
Oachkatzlschwoaf or Eichkätzchenschwanz?
Eventually, the kid said, “I have to ask you something. We ask it of all Americans.” “Okay, go ahead,” I grimaced, expecting yet another grilling about how we could have elected Trump as our president. “Can you say the word, Oachkatzlschwoaf?,” he inquired with a slight smirk. The older man burst out laughing, shook his head, and turned away sheepishly from what was clearly about to be a tourist fleecing. I’m always game to play along with the locals, so I gave the tongue-twister a try. Thankfully, my five years of grade-school German hadn’t totally deserted me, and I reproduced a reasonable facsimile of the guttural string of sounds.
“Hmpfh. That’s pretty good,” the boy sniffed. I could tell he was a bit disappointed to have been robbed of his sport, so I asked, “Did you just teach me some really dirty slang in German?” He said, “No, it means ‘squirrel tail,’ but English speakers and most Germans can never get it right.” I later asked our friend Guenther about the phrase, and he confirmed that it’s a word in the Bavarian / Austrian dialect used to separate outsiders from local folk. The whole thing is kinda funny, because there’s an American / British rumor floating around out there that German speakers can’t say the English word “squirrel.” (Not true, they can.) I have no idea how this little rodent came to be the poster child and definitive test for ferreting out foreignness, but there it is.
In any case, we continued exchanging impressions and ideas about cultural customs until we pulled up to Bad Hofgastein. Our friend Guenther met us at the station and took us to Haus Lagger, the B&B where we would be staying along with his family. The place is a real find, run by the lovely Angela, who serves up a hearty breakfast and offers super comfy rooms with the most breathtaking views of the Alps you could ever hope for.
After a great night’s sleep, we awoke to find that four inches of snow had covered the lawn, much to everyone’s excitement. (Like Norway, Austria has been suffering from the ill effects of global warming, and most ski resorts haven’t seen their fair share of snow for many seasons now.) Matthew and I heaved a sigh of relief at the sight of the white stuff, since we’d been told that it’s much easier to maintain control on fresh powder as opposed to the icy manufactured stuff shot out of snow cannons. But our relief was short-lived. By the time we got to the Angertal Ski Center, about a million eager Austrians had trampled the snow into hard pack. Time for some assistance from a ski instructor.
Let me first explain that Matthew used to ski quite a lot as a child, and during his college days in Minnesota, but nada since then. I myself had gone skiing a handful of times in high school — from atop a trash mound, as Kentucky and Ohio aren’t known for decent ski hills. My most memorable experience involved plummeting 20 feet from a chairlift to land in a ten-foot-deep pile of snow. I wasn’t hurt, but I lay there in shame for awhile, wondering how to climb out of the hole. Luckily I got to ride on the First Aid snowmobile back to the lodge, a legendary feat that made me the envy of my peers and distracted them from my embarrassing fall.
Anyway, all of this to say, Matthew and I were totally and completely unprepared for Alpine slopes. Our instructor Hans gave us some pointers and took us on a few short practice runs before we made our first foray down the bunny hill. Matthew of course did well. Me, not so much. I’ve never gotten the hang of looping back and forth across the mountainside. And no matter how hard I snowplowed, I still shot down the slope so fast that I found myself purposefully diving for the ground to avoid collisions. (I assumed international protocol would frown upon my leaving the snow littered with roadkill — the carcasses of small children who accidentally crossed my path.)
I couldn’t seem to master my fear, despite my teacher’s helpful instructions of, “Don’t be afraid, just stop being scared!” (Geez, that’s so easy! Why the heck didn’t I think of that?) I eventually decided to retreat to the kiddie ski area and watch how the littlest ones learned. Cutest friggin’ things I’ve ever seen. I had to admire the ski instructors, whose job was akin to herding cats. Once the teachers had captured the toddlers’ attentions long enough to get skis on them, the juniors then had to be lured, prodded, or lifted onto the little conveyor belt that took them to the top of the gentle rise. I figured out that the key criteria for a kiddie ski instructor was infinite patience and an incredibly strong back.
While I was busy hiding from my own instructor, Matthew joined Guenther and his two sons for an attempt at the blue slopes — theoretically the easiest for newbies. After three trips down, Matthew met me at the rental return and confessed, “it felt like dropping off a cliff. My legs are shot and shaking.” These definitely weren’t the long, gentle runs he remembered from his skiing days out west. A brief refueling at the ski center’s amazing cafeteria gave him the energy for one last go, then he decided to quit before he injured himself. A good thing, too. When we reconvened for dinner, Guenther’s oldest son — who’s an avid and talented skier — came back sporting a cast on his wrist as a testament to the sheer glaze that had formed when the slopes melted in the sun.
Speaking of dinner, we went back to the ski center that night for a ride in a sled pulled by a snowcat. Our destination? The Felding-Hütte for its incredible spareribs. The place oozes Alpine charm and is the ideal spot for an Après-ski rendezvous. During the meal, we made two revolutionary beverage discoveries: the Almdudler (an herbal soft drink more popular in Austria than Coca-cola) and the Radler (a kind of lemonade mixed with beer.) And we finished the evening with a bang by setting off fireworks in the snow, Guenther’s family tradition.
Hiking in the Hohe Tauern Forest
The next day, since our skiing plans had been curtailed due to injury and poor snow conditions, we set out for a hike through Hohe Tauern National Park. A short drive brought us to the tiny but picturesque town of Bad Gastein (not to be confused with Bad Hofgastein), which became our launching point. We trekked past dozens of adorable chalet-style buildings and slowly made our way along farmer’s fields, each with their own log-cabin hay barn. Take a look at some of the sights below:
Eventually we entered the forest, and although the sun shone brightly on a distant mountain peak, everything along the valley floor remained in shadow. At one point, the trail skirted a huge rockfall that had wiped out all the trees in its pathway. The place seemed completely deserted and unearthly quiet, except for the tapping of our walking sticks. But a distant tinkling of sleigh bells hinted at the approach of a wagon filled with hotel guests heading back from the very eatery we were aiming for: the Alpenhaus Prossau.
More Colon Blockers Coming up!
It took us a couple of hours to reach the restaurant, but boy was it worth the hike. Not just another Alpine cutie, the lodge served up some seriously delicious game. Lunch consisted of a heaping pile of different cold cuts — goose sausage, mountain goat salami, and deer prepared two different ways. And as we dined, the owner regaled us with the story of the storm that nearly put a period to the place.
Intense rainfall in the autumn of 2016 caused part of the mountain slope to give way, which sent a wall of rock cascading down the valley almost to the restaurant’s doorstep. The owner and his family, who live upstairs, watched the whole scenario unfold in the space of about twenty minutes. Talk about your close calls — and a cleanup that took nine months and cost several hundred thousand euros. On our walk back to the car, we eyed the huge river of rock we’d noticed earlier and had a new appreciation for its history.
Sights & Sounds of Salzburg
We’d reserved the next day for a quick trip to Salzburg. And no, it wasn’t for a “Sound of Music” tour, nor a Mozart-stalking moment. (I’m saving the SOM thing for when I do Salzburg with my mom, who’s a big fan of the musical. And truth be told, we tried to get into Mozart’s birthplace, but the line was out the door.) Instead, our whirlwind tour focused on soaking in the ambience of the refined Old Town and seeing two of the city’s most important historical sites: the Cathedral and the Hohensalzburg Fortress. Take a tour through the photo galleries below to learn more ….
Salszburg’s Old Town
The Austrian Winter Games
After returning home from our Salzburg outing, Guether and his family decided to introduce us to a beloved Austrian game called eisstockschiessen. The name literally translates as “ice stick shooting,” although there’s no gun involved. You need only a weighted stick, a long run of ice, and a decent throwing arm. It’s a bit like Canadian curling, but without the squeegee that’s typically used to heat up the pathway in front of the weight so that it travels further.
The game is so popular that not only do many Austrian cities offer public eisstockbahnens (“ice stick rinks”) in winter, but it’s also wise to reserve your spot at least a day in advance. The night we played, the cold weather didn’t deter groups of people who wandered by to see if they could nab a lane or catch a really good game in progress. Needless to say, I think we might have proved a disappointment. While Guenther’s wife Maria and his mom Christa both had wickedly accurate tosses, they were handicapped by us two newbies, not to mention that Guenther had thrown out his back right before the trip, and Lukas had to shoot left-handed due to his cast. Oh well — we’ll give it a go again next year, I hope.
Bathing in Bad Hofgastein
For our last day in Bad Hofgastein, Matthew and I decided to sample the reason for the town’s name: the thermal baths. The literature claims that, in addition to the usual minerals, the water also contains “rare natural radon gas.” Yeah, so does my basement back home. I never imagined that a carcinogenic gas would be a great selling point, but supposedly when packed in hot-spring form, “radon regenerates the function of disrupted cells, mobilizes the body’s own immune defenses, and gets the entire body back into gear.” Sounds promising. Sign me up. We’ll just shelve that cancer thing to think about later.
Lots of hotels in Bad Hofgastein advertise their own mineral baths (I gather it must be fairly easy to tap into the big pipeline that brings the hot underground spring water from Bad Gastein to Bad Hofgastein.) But we selected the huge, public Alpentherme for its indoor and outdoor pools, as well as water slides, jacuzzis, a lazy river, a sauna, and a restaurant. For about $34 you can spend the day hopping from one experience to the next, with a nice lunch in between. Or if you don’t mind laying out a little more cash, you can get a variety of massages and beauty treatments — including odd squishy stuff like being “soft-packed” in goat butter, hay, algae, truffles, or peat from the moors. Wonder if you get to snack on any of the edibles while chillaxing in the ooze?
Another New Year’s in Vienna
We could only dedicate about four hours (for a discounted rate of $28) to luxuriating in the silky water before jaunting off to the railway station. Although we’d hoped to spend New Year’s Eve in Bad Hofgastein, it turns our there weren’t any trains the following morning that could get us back to Vienna in time to catch our Oslo flight. So we took a brief tour around the adorable town with Guenther and the boys before hugging everyone goodbye and heading out.
Back in Vienna, we made our rounds of the punsch-and-potato-pancake stands and picked up a few New Year’s souvenirs in the stalls that lined the Silvesterpfad (“New Year’s Eve Trail” — it winds through the center of town and offers food, drinks, live performances, and dance floors with DJs). And we popped by the Opera House for a street-side projection of the Die Fledermaus production happening within. (It’s an annual tradition, and the best way to snag a cheap seat and an insider peek at Vienna’s glitziest NYE party.) We eventually parked our fairly pickled posteriors outside the Rathaus (“City Hall”) to toast in the midnight countdown. Our New Year’s wish? Another opportunity to experience the holiday with Guenther and family next year in Bad Hofgastein!